This weekend, colossal neon letters were installed in the plaza of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a steel arena splitting the borough’s busiest streets. Those entering the arena will see the first half of the phrase (“You Belong Here”). Upon leaving the Barclays Center, visitors will see the second half (“We Belong Here”). Thousands pour through the Barclays subway station every day, some of whom invariably will meet the sentiment with a degree of skepticism. In a city with sky-high rents, and in a country grappling with its racist legacy, what does it mean to belong? The artist behind those neon letters, Tavares Strachan, counts on the viewer to ask that question.
“You belong here is a starting point,” Strachan told ARTnews. “Who decides if we belong? Is it in the power of the individual or the group? I am trying to work this out as a member of this community myself.”
This is the most highly visible artwork the Bahamian artist has ever produced, though he’s already well-known for the scale of his ambition. His practice incorporates elements of research, performance, and sculpture, and often deals in the near-impossible. For a past project, Strachan made multiple trips to the Arctic circle in honor of Matthew Henson, the Black explorer whose involvement in the famous 1909 expedition to the North Pole was denied recognition. No Bahamian before Strachan had visited the northern-most region in the world. In 2013, at the Venice Biennale, Strachan dedicated the first-ever Bahamian Pavilion to Henson.
“My childhood was about exploration, mostly because I really felt the limits of my island,” he said. “My practice became a way of dealing with the scale of my world.”
One of the artist’s more recent works, The Encyclopedia of Invisibility, is both a sculpture and functional compendium containing 15,000 entries devoted to forms of forgotten and obscure knowledge. A team of female South Korean divers and a translucent squid found only in Antarctica are listed in it alongside the Jamaican d.j. and singer Sister Nancy. Underpinning it all is an interest in unpacking the biases that inform systems of knowledge and record-keeping. Who gets to be remembered, and why?
An earlier iteration of the Barclays Center work was installed on the facade of Compound, a new exhibition space in Los Angeles dedicated to art and wellness. The facility is split between the Laboratory, which stages site-specific commissions, and the Warehouse, which offers healing and meditation sessions, among other services. Strachan’s commission was akin to a welcome mat, meant to signal that the center is community focused.
The phrase “You belong here” may translate differently when read in Brooklyn. Since the $6-billion Atlantic Yards Project was first announced in 2008, rent and commercial prices in the area have skyrocketed. Initial promises from developers that the project would include over 2,000 units of affordable housing were never realized, and hundreds of long-term residents and businesses have since been displaced.
After last May, the Barclays Center became synonymous with protest. Following the murder of George Floyd, thousands of demonstrators filled the plaza in front of the arena, where they were met with brutal crowd suppression tactics by police. Despite the violence, nearly every march in Brooklyn that summer passed through the plaza, due to its strategic location near the borough’s biggest intersection and at the foot of a bridge into Manhattan. Today, it’s a curious place, both a symbol of New York’s gentrification problem and a town square of sorts. It’s been the site of prayer and the place where a tribute to the late rapper DMX was held.
Strachan, who has lived and worked in Harlem since 2008, doesn’t take this context lightly. “Sites are alive long before we get to them,” he said. “This site means so many different things to so many people, and what’s important for me is the chance to contribute to its continued discourse.”
For the project he collaborated with Clara Wu Tsai, the philanthropist and criminal justice activist behind the Tsai Foundation (she is also the co-owner of the Brooklyn Nets, home team of the Barclays Center). Tsai and Strachan have known each other for years, and share a passion for the intersection of art, community, and science.
“The arts are a powerful tool to inspire lasting social change, and I hope that Tavares’s words of belonging resonate with everyone who passes through the Barclays Center plaza,” Wu Tsai told ARTnews.
Last year, the foundation’s Social Justice Fund launched a $50-million program to help BIPOC-owned Brooklyn businesses recover from the pandemic. So far, they’ve provided loans ranging from $15,000 to $100,000. Additionally, five Brooklyn-based community leaders, including a local ER doctor and an activist and writer, received grants in recognition of their efforts.
“This work is very much an extension of our Social Justice Fund, which drives economic mobility and belonging for BIPOC communities here in Brooklyn,” Wu Tsai added. “These communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and this is an important moment of solidarity for everyone.”